Last week I worked in an apartment building in a poor part of town. The building was a two-story brick building with 37 apartments. While I was there, I saw all kinds of people going in and out of the building. Many of them stopped on the porch to share a cigarette, some walked around with cans of beer, most were dressed in thrift store clothes, several had winter clothes that were inadequate for the cold.
I noticed a person with a limp, I spoke to a person who had no teeth. I’ve seen residents walk to the local Aldi and come back with a gallon of milk and no other groceries. The building had no courtyard or parking lot.
Also last week, a relative of mine ended up in hospital with seizures. He is an uneducated young man. He worked full time at a minimum wage job until his seizures made him unreliable and they let him go. He lives with his mother who also works below the poverty line. The small family has never had enough resources and health care has been uneven over the years. They live in the bare minimum of acceptable housing because that is what they can afford. They often find themselves without a vehicle due to lack of funds for repairs.
It got me thinking about the poverty in our country and what it would take to ensure everyone had access to decent health care, decent housing, and the ability to earn a living. I know a lot of people will take the two examples above and say that these people just aren’t working hard enough to be successful. Or, they made bad choices and that’s how they ended up where they are today.
There’s this school of thought that if you’re poor, you somehow deserve it because you haven’t made it. And there is no doubt that hard work and drive can overcome many obstacles. But most of us needed a little help along the way.
Maybe you were blessed with a good education, or maybe your family has a business that put you to work when you needed it. Maybe you inherited a car from your grandparents or were given an interview suit and an interview with a family friend. Maybe your mom took care of the kids while you worked.
This kind of help is a hallmark of the American middle class that helps the next generation succeed. Others weren’t so lucky. Maybe your father died, leaving the family with no income. Or maybe you had to work at a young age, so you never went to college or apprenticed in a trade.
Or maybe you’re a new immigrant overcoming language barriers, or a single mom with no childcare. Or maybe you had a medical condition that went untreated because your family didn’t have health insurance. Or maybe your parents were turned down for a mortgage because they weren’t white.
These friends and relatives need the help of the community to lift them up and lift them out of poverty. Our community, in the form of our participatory democratic government, can provide these helpful programs that allow us all to prosper.
In the 1960s, President Johnson had a vision to end poverty in the United States. He called his vision, the Great Society. The programs he proposed targeted education, workforce training, health care, food security, voting and civil rights. President Johnson successfully pushed through programs like Medicare and Medicaid that provide health insurance to our elderly neighbors, our disabled neighbors, and our poor neighbors. He launched education programs like Head Start and invested in public education. He has worked with Congress on affordable housing and environmental protection. Many of Johnson’s initiatives were signed into law and are still relevant today.
In 2022, we need our own vision of the Great Society. A vision that faces similar poverty issues like low wages, expensive education and lack of affordable housing. At the same time, our small businesses lack skilled workers. We must once again move to the basics of ensuring a strong workforce through training and education. We must help working people by raising the minimum wage, subsidizing quality child care, and extending the child tax credit and working income tax credit included in the US bailout Last year.
The recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help bring broadband to rural America, repair roads and bridges, and modernize public transportation. It will also make investments in drinking water and strengthening our electricity network. With these improvements come job opportunities and support for families and businesses.
But I ask the question, what will it take to ensure that all of our neighbors have decent housing and healthcare? What will it take for all our neighbors to have the opportunity to have a good education or professional training? What will it take to ensure that workers can earn a living wage?
It will take a shared vision of what our community could be, it will take brave politicians to compromise on solutions for the public good. It will take your participation in our democracy, our community and our government. The Great Society of 2022 is fast approaching.
Beth Anderson is a resident of Savage and a contributor to Community Voices.